Where We Are/Where Are We? [Part I]

Election Interference, Trump, Social Media,

Journalism and Fake News

There was a recent report that more Americans are depressed than ever, dragged down by events that range from the current political instability, deep national divisions, global conflict, the intrusion of social media and the ever-present “breaking” and “fake” news.

There’s a lot going on.

We seem to have reached a tipping point. The fundamental values that have bound us together are frayed and the notion of “a more perfect union” seems like a fantasy.

So how did we get here? There are a lot of reasons for this, some of which I will get into later, but the most obvious, to me, is that we are more easily manipulated than I can ever remember.

Let’s use the most recent presidential election as ground zero for this different country and planet we now find ourselves living on.

When I started in the communications business, first hanging a shingle as a political consultant, I was amazed at how voters, over time, could be swayed toward or away from a candidate and a campaign. It generally took time and concentrated effort for a trend to emerge.

The term “negative campaign” had been around for a while, but the Willie Horton attack ad (paid for by a third party Political Action Committee when PACs were not yet on the public consciousness) on presidential candidate Michael Dukakis (the man who hired a young me to help organize in Western Massachusetts during his 1982 governor’s race) was a watershed moment. Watching it now, and while the racial overtone is raw and disturbing, with the ad’s premise that Dukakis is soft on crime, it feels almost tame by today’s standards. That’s how far down the slippery slope we have traveled.

What every political consultant and operative learned from “Willie Horton” was that driving up the negatives of the opponent, indeed, works like a charm. Dukakis had a 20-point lead prior to this and other related attacks, and as a result of this relentless assault, George H. W. Bush won by a comfortable margin. Lessons were learned.

I remember attending an American Association of Political Consultants conference in Washington DC and hearing the legendary Robert Squire (he, along with Springfield’s own Joseph Napolitan, are considered among the fathers of the modern political consulting business) explain how a negative campaign, he called it a “rainmaker,” could offer the pathway to victory.

Here’s how a rainmaker works. Candidates from the beginning of elections have always worried about rain or bad weather on election day. They and their campaign teams fret, with good reason, about softer supporters choosing to stay home to avoid inclement weather. Slight variations in turnout can make the difference between winning and losing.

Let’s say in the last presidential race a woman in suburban Detroit was leaning toward Hillary Clinton, is independent but generally supports Democrats in presidential elections. But this voter was not completely sold on Hillary. As election day draws near, along comes an attack on this woman’s Facebook page, in recorded phone calls and on TV on an issue near and dear to this voter. This woman and her family lost their home to foreclosure during the mortgage meltdown, and this voter has a strong and visceral opinion about the Wall Street banks that perpetrated the meltdown and the loss of her home. Any candidate connected to Wall Street in any way is a candidate who will have trouble winning this voter.

The messaging she is being bombarded with hits Clinton for accepting a $675,000 speaking fee from Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs (what were they thinking?). That’s a problem for the voter, and a problem for the Clinton campaign. While this particular voter really dislikes Donald Trump, she decides, based on the Wall Street linkage to Clinton, she will stay home, and out of the “rain.”

If this kind of scenario happened to affect around 10,000 voters in Michigan, which it did in 2016, the results can be stunning, and historic. Out of the 4.8 million votes cast in Michigan, 10,000 votes are almost statistically insignificant, except in the last presidential election they weren’t. Those 10,000 votes produced Trump’s margin over Clinton.

In Part II, I will get into just how targeted messaging through illegitimate news and related sites gets directly to you (spooky) and gets you to lean or even vote a certain way—or even stay home on election day, out of the rain.

So how does this have any relation to the Russian interference? If you are a foe of American democracy, you have a new tool, particularly with the rise of social media, to interfere and “make it rain,” among other things.

The Russians did not discriminate; they wreaked havoc throughout social media with bogus posts across the political spectrum that voters ate up as real, shared to their networks and friends multiplying the effect, and before you know it, “fake news” was real. A Trump rally and demonstration in Florida was conceived of and prompted by a social media boiler room in Russia, and it worked. There was also the guy who showed up with a gun to break up the child pornography ring that Hillary Clinton, according to this guy’s “news” feed, was operating out of a DC pizza shop. You cannot make this stuff up.

It bothers Trump and his supporters that this interference may have delegitimized his election to the highest office. But as Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s acting chief of staff, famously said, “Get over it.” Next time it might be the Republican who is victimized. And don’t think the Russians, or North Koreans, or Chinese or Iranians will stop messing with other federal, state and local elections. Remember, the goal is chaos and a degrading of democratic institutions.

It would be hard to argue on either side of the political aisle that what we have right now is anything but chaos with our institutions under assault.

As we gird for the next presidential election in a short few months, it would be good for the nation to learn the lessons from 2016. There is more at risk, and at stake, in the current cycle.

In Part II I will share more on this fake news/social media targeting, thoughts on journalism, which is experiencing an existential threat and how, at the same time, there really is hope.

Photograph of Paul Robbins
Paul Robbins

Get the latest blog updates via email...